Your Next High-Paying Job May Be In An Industry That Was Never On Your Radar

Sit in on any meeting at Reckitt Benckiser in Slough, west of London, and you’ll get some valuable insights on the changing global workplace and the art of finding a job. This rapidly growing consumer products company prides itself on attracting top executives whose instincts are honed for mobility, global adaptation and data-driven rationality. I’ve had the privilege of attending many meetings at RB because I’ve helped them recruit for the executive suite. 

Here’s what you should know, if you have the good fortune to snare a job interview:

  • The winning combination of personality traits for RB isn’t nice, polite, pensive, and self-restrained.
  • Flaunting the premium you place on friends, family, and downtime is absolutely fine—at some other company. 
  • If you build an argument out of facts you learned last year, or even two months ago, somebody may point you to the nearest exit. 

RB manufactures a large line of products found in American kitchens and medicine chests. It owns brands such as Woolite, Lysol, Finish, and French’s mustard, as well as Clearasil, Mucinex, and some prescription drugs. Its mission is to place its brands in homes around the world, while keeping the lightest-possible carbon footprint. You can already find its wares lining store shelves from Mumbai to Mexico City to Kumamoto. With operating margins of 26 percent and solid year-over-year revenue growth, RB stands up well next to P&G and Colgate-Palmolive.

There’s no single secret to success like RB’s. But I’m finding that more and more CEOs at successful companies take pride in an aggressive, straight-talking culture that’s in sync with fundamental shifts in the professional landscape. As nearly everyone knows, lifetime employment is gone forever, along with defined-benefit pensions, secretary pools, retirement at age 65, and other balms of 20th-century work life. They’ve all been obliterated by globalization, high-tech innovation, and our collective embrace of constant change. 

This means that hiring managers no longer expect job candidates to swear lifelong allegiance to the company, or even to the industry in which they were trained. Managers know talented candidates are restless—that’s okay, they’re restless, too. In an interview, you don’t need to itemize your skills, which are on your resume. If you want a senior position, don’t describe how, in your last job, you drove sales from $700 million to $1 billion. That’s also on your CV. What employers want to know—if they’re worth talking to in the first place—is not what the product you managed has earned, but how it has changed customers’ lives. They’ll also be pleased if you have that rare ability to see beyond the company’s immediate horizons, talk about what might lie around the bend, and chart a course that produces profit amidst inevitable change.

At big, sprawling companies that fail to embrace the ethos I’m describing, executives practice defensive arts: protecting their paychecks and championing the ideas of anyone who signs their performance reviews. One gets the impression there’s been a lot of spinal surgery, because it’s hard to find people with backbones. RB is different. At its headquarters in Slough, the week isn’t jammed with scheduled meetings. Products aren’t designed by consensus. Individuals own their business proposals, which get ripped up if they’re not grounded in knowledge and data. With fast-growing bases in Asia and South America, the company discourages candidates who shun relocation because of family considerations. Not coincidentally, this is a place where people can make many times their base pay in bonuses.  

My recent experiences at RB and other performance-driven companies helped me distill some tips for finding jobs and holding them until you’re ready to move on:

  • Keep a deal sheet showing how your business decisions benefit consumers and change people’s lives. You may initially come up blank, but the exercise will set you on the right path.
  • Pretend this is 2015. Figure out how your target industry might evolve in the next three years and share your understanding in the job interview. 
  • Once you land, learn to manage down, not up. Instead of catering to people higher on the corporate chart, sit in the cafeteria with people who don’t report to you and learn what they already know.  
  • Listen to partners and customers in emerging markets. When American executives in India or Peru shed their sense of entitlement, they learn a lot about honor, dignity, and glee.
  • Embrace uncertainty. The first day you report to work is the day you begin reapplying for your job. 

This last point is critical because so many executives these days venture far from their areas of formal training or expertise. A few years ago, CFO magazine chronicled an explosion of industry-hopping among top finance officers across a swath of sectors, from food and energy to retail, real estate, travel, and telecommunications. This year, in a survey for employment consultants CareerBuilder, Harris Interactive found that 60 percent of 900 candidates seeking jobs in the prior 12 months found employment by moving from one industry to another. That’s up from 47 percent in a similar 2010 survey. 

If the main goal is to have an impact on people’s lives, no industries are more inviting than life sciences and health care. This broad sector may seem an odd choice, given the violent contractions in some areas. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, announced nearly 54,000 job cuts in 2010 and another 19,076 through September of this year, according to consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas.  Merck alone may shed as much as 13 percent of its 100,000-person work force by 2015. And yet, nobody would argue that the business of developing life-saving medicines is going to wither away. The upheavals present huge opportunities to executives who wish to test their skills and make a difference on patient’s lives. 

Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass, is a good case study. Last May, under the leadership of CEO Matt Emmens, Vertex won Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approval for Incivek, a drug that stops hepatitis C before the virus has a chance to destroy patients’ livers. Confident that the drug wipes out the virus, Vertex managers could have concentrated their efforts on gathering and presenting clinical-trial data to the FDA. But they went further. Vertex studied the new treatment from the patient’s perspective, analyzed concerns about safety and side-effects, and made sure the information got to physicians and patient groups. Patients responded with enthusiasm, clamoring to get into the clinical trials before the drug got approved. Incivek, an oral medication many patients tolerate much better than they do the current standard of care, may be on its way to becoming a $1 billion-a-year blockbuster.

Treating an illness is an obvious way to serve customers who happen to be patients. But health care certainly isn’t the only area where executives can have a personal impact. Consumer products also change lives. On a recent, long flight, I observed the transformation of a very unhappy fellow traveler. I was surprised when he failed to assist me with a clumsy piece of luggage that had to get placed on an overhead rack. He was also discourteous to the flight attendant and curt with other passengers. But once we were airborne and Wi-Fi was up, he logged onto his Mac and everything changed. In a live conversation with someone very close (his wife or girlfriend?) his whole demeanor warmed and softened. There was joy on his face, courtesy in his manner, and when we landed, he helped me retrieve the obstinate suitcase. I acknowledge that every product can’t be an ingenious amalgam of circuits and software from Apple. But it is good to hold these archetypes of transformation in mind as you probe the value of something you are trying to sell. 

I would like to add that Steve Jobs, genius that he was, didn’t get everything right. He’s reported to have said:  “If you are in a shrinking industry, get out of it quick and change before you become obsolete.” This misses the mark. Businesses or industries that serve basic human needs don’t shrink, fundamentally. They contract over time, then transform, then grow for a while before contracting again. It all depends where you are in a continuum that can’t be mapped with precision. In the metaphor of quantum mechanics, you can’t know where things stand and, at the same time, measure their momentum as they change. That’s how I think about medicine. For all the turmoil, it promises unbelievable rewards to competent leaders who master the turbulence.

Obviously, hopping from one industry to another is the height of futility unless the change inspires new ways of thinking about value. As I said earlier, the secret to success isn’t driving up volume sales of widgets. The same is true for the cultural shifts on display at Reckitt Benckiser. Straight talk and tough love are no substitute for effective product development and marketing.  But if you can change people’s lives for the better, even in small ways, marketing and sales will take care of themselves. 

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[Image: Flickr user gilesclement]

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